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Olympics: Why winning a bronze medal beats silver

About the author

Tom is a Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science for the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, UK. He is the co-author of the bestselling popular science book Mind Hacks and writes for the award-winning blog Mind Hacks which reports on psychology and neuroscience. You can follow him on Twitter at @tomstafford.

Why winning bronze beats silver in the Olympics

McKayla Maroney is not impressed (Copyright: Getty Images)

It's not what you win, but how you win it. And understanding why can help us deal with regret.

The London 2012 Olympic Games are almost over now, and those Olympians with medals are able to relax and rest on the laurels of victory. Or so you might think. Spare a thought for the likes of Yohan Blake, McKayla Maroney, or Emily Seebohm – those people who are taking home silver.

Yes, that's right, I'm asking you to feel sorry for silver medallists, not for the bronze medallists or for those who didn't get the chance to stand on the podium at all.

Research has shown that silver medallists feel worse, on average, than bronze medallists. (Gold medallists, obviously, feel best of all.) The effect is written all over their faces, as psychologists led by Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University found out when they collected footage of the medallists at the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona. Gilovich's team looked at images of medal winners either at the end of events – that is, when they had just discovered their medal position – or as they collected their medals on the podium. They then asked volunteers who were ignorant of the athlete’s medal position to rate their facial expressions. Sure enough, the volunteers rated bronze medallists as consistently and significantly happier than silver medallists, both immediately after competing, and on the podium.

The reason is all to do with how bronze and silver medallists differ in the way they think events could have turned out – what psychologists call “counterfactual thinking”. In a follow-up study, the team went to the 1994 Empire State Games and interviewed athletes immediately after they had competed. Silver medallists were more likely to use phrases like "I almost…", concentrating their responses on what they missed out on. Bronze medallists, on the other hand, tended to contemplate the idea of missing out on a medal altogether. These differences in counterfactual thinking make silver medallists feel unlucky, in comparison to a possible world where they could have won gold, and make bronze medallists feel lucky, in comparison to a possible world where they could have returned home with nothing.

So the research seems to add a bit of scientific meat to Hamlet's famous line "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so", as well as revealing something about the psychology of regret. Even though we must deal with the world as it is, a vital part of life is imagining the world as it could be – thinking about a job you should have applied for (or said “no” to), or someone you should (or shouldn’t) have asked out on a date, for instance.

Haunted by the past

Different possible worlds crowd compete, some seeming closer than others, and this is what drives regret. This is illustrated by a study that asked volunteers to read a story about a plane crash survivor who walked through the wilderness for days, collapsing and die before reaching civilisation. They were then asked how much compensation the victim's family should receive. People who read a version where the survivor collapsed 75 miles (120 kilometres) from safety awarded less compensation than those who read that the survivor collapsed just a quarter of a mile from safety.

Both scenarios ended the same, but the second version seems more tragic to us because the person seemed so much closer to safety. Remember that the next time you see a Hollywood film that plays with your emotions in this manner.

Understanding the psychology of regret also helps to put our own thoughts and emotions into context. We're all haunted by things we could have done, or shouldn't have done. What's the point in dwelling on such matters, we may ask, when we can't change the past? But the study of the Olympic medallists gives us two thoughts that might help us deal with regret.

The first is that regret, like imagination generally, exists for a reason – this amazing cognitive ability is what allows us to plan for the future and, with luck, change things based on how we imagine they might turn out. Medallists who feel more regret may well go on to train harder, and smarter, and so be better able to win gold at the next Olympics. Regret, like so many of the territories of the mind, can hurt. It hurts whether we can change how things have worked out, or not, but the feeling is built into our brains for a good reason (however little comfort that provides).

The second thought that might help us deal with regret is to realise that there are many possible worlds we could compare events to. It's natural for many silver medallists to feel that they've missed out on gold, and to the extent we can choose what we compare ourselves to, we can choose how we feel about our regrets. We can use them to drive us to future success, but also to appreciate what we do have.

So maybe it isn't all bad for Blake, Maroney or Seebohm after all?

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